Faith is an interesting thing. I guess it is like a vitamin or a locked door. We believe it is at work but aren’t necessarily interested in testing it out, so to speak. In taking a daily multi-vitamin I may fathom great things going on in my body, defenses being shored up and repairs taking place, but I don’t really want to be faced with an illness or disease to see if the vitamin can truly withstand such an onslaught. Or I may lock my doors at night and sleep better because whatever is “out there” won’t get past my locked door and be “in here” with me, but I don’t ever want to see that handle being jiggled from the outside at two in the morning. Faith sometimes seems like those things. My grandfather died on May 22, 2008. I could literally go on and on about the amazing man that he was but will suffice it to say that he lived his life as a Polish Catholic father of 8, grandfather of 20, great-grandfather of 30, and great-great grandfather of 1 in such a way that if faith in Christ and His one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church will beget eternal reward in heaven, well, then, Grandpa is enjoying the presence of Christ. But tending to him during his final days, being his Extraordinary Minister over the course of his last few months on earth, and spending time in quiet contemplation over his decline and what life would be like without him made me take notice of my own apparently meager faith.
During one such time of prayer I couldn’t help but say to myself, “Cheryl, he is just months shy of his 92nd birthday. He’s lived a long life and will soon be in heaven. Rejoice!” But I didn’t rejoice. I felt sad and lonely because my grandfather was really like a father to me, and a father that I was losing. My grandfather represented everything good that a man should be. He was a hard worker, often working three jobs to make ends “meet” and send his children to parochial schools. He cared for his beloved wife the last ten years of her life which were lived as an invalid and he was already 70 years old when her final decline began. He loved and supported kids and grandkids who left the Catholic Church, always witnessing to his own Catholic faith by attending daily Mass and caring for others. And it has to be said that he gardened and grew tomatoes like no one’s business! He had 15 filled salt shakers because summer meant going to grandpa’s, grabbing a salt shaker from the kitchen, and heading to the garden to grab a tomato fresh off the vine!
His last Christmas, at 91 years old, saw him in a suit and tie at our breakfast table, thanking my sister for the beautiful time together and blessing each and every one of us with his words but also with his presence. My grandfather was known for always saying “thank you” and the time was approaching for me to say “thank you” to God for allowing me to have been Norbert’s first grandchild. But I just couldn’t get to that point. As each day slipped by and life slowly slipped from him, I began to question my faith in earnest.
Seriously, I thought, shouldn’t I have been jumping up and down with joy that my grandfather would soon be in the company of Christ? I may not be allowed to judge but I felt fairly confident, knowing the trials and tribulations of my grandfather’s earthly life, that his purgatory time couldn’t truly amount to much. This was a man who in his 70′s was still carrying his wife to the bathroom because he was adamant that it was his job and no one else’s. Sylvia was his “duchess” and he treated her as such until her death. Indeed, my grandfather sacrificed material goods his whole life to provide for the family God gave him as neither he nor my grandmother would consider anything other than pro-creating as they were expected to. It wasn’t about vacations or cars but about God.
And as they say, there’s the rub. I consider myself a faithful, faith-filled, Catholic woman and yet wasn’t rejoicing in Grandpa being called back home. Why is that, I wondered?
Then I received, in the midst of this, a mammogram report. Yes, the dreaded report that says you have to head back for a second round of diagnostics. And my heart sank. Again, no jumping and singing, “Maybe I’m going home!” Instead, my immediate pleas for healing began, even though I didn’t know if healing was, indeed, even necessary. In other words, fear set in and then the sincere question about my faith. Could I proclaim myself as a faith-filled woman and still dread a bad doctor’s report or my grandfather’s death?
Can we be faithful, believing Catholics and still experience the fear or sadness of such things? I have a good friend who had an extended family member recently die. Upon her death bed, still conscious and able to talk, this woman shared her enthusiasm for Jesus and had no apparent, outward indications that the end of her life was bringing her fear. Maybe I don’t have the faith of this woman but surely I have faith the size of a mustard seed. Why, then, no jumping for joy?
As I shared this feeling with a dear colleague she gently reminded me that faith doesn’t remove grief, it gives hope in the midst of it. She is right, of course, and I can now chuckle at myself when I realize that as I questioned the reality of my own faith, it was in many different conversations with Christ. After all, who else could I ask? Who else would answer because who else knew what existed in the depths of my heart?
Much was made in the secular media about Mother Teresa’s doubts and what was essentially called her “crisis of faith.” Without giving credence to such reports, my recent personal experiences have made it easy for me to see how even, or maybe even how much more so, a woman like Mother Teresa would experience such feelings. Her faith was tested on a daily basis. But I would suggest that if the depths of her faith weren’t enough, she never would have been able to go on with her work. So she may very well have lived in such a way that the testing of her faith begat the questioning of her faith which, in turn, strengthened her faith.
So while our faith isn’t something we necessarily want tested, we often find that when tested it shows us who we are. Our faith gives us hope in the midst of our fears and our sadness; but faith also makes our joys that much more gratifying. Ultimately, our faith fortifies us for life’s journey.